The first of some 3,000 additional US troops bound for Afghanistan have already arrived at Kabul’s main airport to help evacuate State Department personnel Afghan civilians, the Pentagon announced Friday.
The bulk of the rest of the soldiers and Marines are expected to arrive before Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Their mission, announced by the Pentagon on Thursday, is to bolster Turkey’s security mission at the airport and help safeguard the US Embassy in the Afghan capital. US military aircraft are also being prepared to help evacuate personnel amid a blistering Taliban advance across the country.
“Airlift will not be a limiting factor in this mission,” Kirby said at the Pentagon on Friday, adding that the United States will be able to evacuate “thousands per day,” in addition to civilian and other air traffic out of Hamid Karzai International.
Asked by a reporter whether the three infantry battalions may remain in Afghanistan beyond the Biden administration's Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, Kirby said, “Obviously we’re going to be watching the security situation day by day. I can’t speak to what that’s going to look like in days to come.”
“The mission that we’ve been assigned is to support the State Department’s reduction in personnel by the end of the month. And so that’s the timeline we’re focused on,” Kirby said.
“If we need to adjust, either way, left or right, we’ll do that. We’re going to be always looking at the security conditions on the ground.”
In a stunning blitz, Taliban insurgents have captured roughly half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in just over a week, sending thousands fleeing toward government-held territory.
The cities of Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, have all reportedly fallen within the last 24 hours. Fighting with government forces in Logar province Friday placed the insurgents within 50 miles of Kabul.
CNN reported Friday that State Department personnel at the embassy in Kabul have been ordered to begin destroying sensitive documents and electronics.
State Department spokesman Ned Price announced Thursday the Kabul embassy would draw down to a core staff by the end of the month.
The near-collapse of the Afghan military outside the capital was precipitated by the rapid withdrawal of US and NATO troops from the country on orders from President Joe Biden, in accordance with an agreement struck with the Taliban during the Trump administration.
“We have noted with great concern the speed at which they [Taliban] have been moving and the lack of resistance they have faced,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.
“The deteriorating conditions are a factor, a big factor, in why the president has approved the mission,” Kirby said.
Pentagon officials are not describing the evacuation operation as a combat mission, but Kirby emphasized that the troops retain the right to defend themselves and other personnel if attacked.
“They’re certainly going into harm’s way,” he said Friday. Turkish officials are currently exploring potential talks with the Taliban in hope of ensuring the safety of their security mission at the airport. The discussions have the public support of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
NATO representatives convened to discuss the Taliban’s advances Friday. The alliance, which has spent two decades supporting the US-led mission in Afghanistan, said its diplomatic personnel will remain in Kabul for the time being.
“Kabul is not, right now, in an imminent threat environment,” Kirby said Friday, but cautioned that “time is a precious commodity” as the Taliban seek to militarily isolate the city.
Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former top official overseeing policy in the Middle East, called on the Biden administration to rescind the withdrawal order. In lieu of that, he said, an international mission should establish a safe zone around Kabul to protect Afghan civilians, particularly women.
“That should come with a clear warning to the Taliban that if they enter the Kabul region, they will be met by military force from the United States,” Mulroy, now an ABC News analyst, told Al-Monitor.
“We need to be having these conversations now, as uncomfortable or difficult as they may be,” he said, adding, “We are running out of time to do something about this.”
But earlier in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Biden’s statement this week that he does not regret the decision to withdraw.
“The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to execute an orderly drawdown and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” Psaki said.
The Pentagon’s authorization to conduct airstrikes in support of the Afghan government is set to expire at the end of this month.